Op-Ed: Unbelievably, women still don’t have equal rights in the Constitution
The current wave of female rage started with the Women’s March on Washington: millions of women coming together and rising up around the country, even around the world.
Now it’s #MeToo — an explosion of pent-up rage after decades, even generations, of women putting up with sexual harassment from the men they work with or for.
But arguably the rage dates back to the beginning of the republic, when women were intentionally left out of the Constitution.
Abigail Adams is usually quoted as suggesting mildly to her husband, John Adams, “remember the ladies.” Actually, she wrote him a threatening letter: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could . . . we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
The #MeToo campaign has greatly amplified calls for passage and ratification of the ERA.
Women finally got the vote in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified — more than a century after the Constitution was written.
A few years later, in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress to give women all the other rights in the Constitution. The amendment makes discrimination against women unconstitutional and prohibits legal distinction between the sexes when it comes to property, employment and a whole host of other things.
But almost a century later, the ERA is still unfinished business. That’s right: Women still don’t have constitutional equality.
Congress didn’t get around to passing the ERA until the 1970s, and even then, it fell short of the 38 states needed for ratification by the time the deadline expired in 1982. It has been introduced in every session of Congress since but has never made it to the floor for a vote.
Now is the moment for change. The #MeToo campaign has greatly amplified calls for passage and ratification of the ERA. We are hearing from women and girls around the country who want to know what they can do to get constitutional equality — and when the next rally is.
That’s because equal rights for women is a nonpartisan issue that transcends politics, age, geography and gender. In fact, most Americans — 80% — think we already have equal rights.
Among other things, the ERA would enhance the scope of legal recourse for violence and discrimination against women.
For example, in 2000, the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Violence Against Women Act that gave women the right to bring cases of gender-based violence in federal courts. The court held that there was no basis in the Constitution to uphold this provision of the law.
Had there been a constitutional basis for the law, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Christie Brzonkala, a victim of campus sexual assault in the 1990s, might have prevailed against her assailants. Had Brzonkala’s case not been thrown out by the Supreme Court, campus sexual assault might not be as prevalent today.
In addition to giving women more effective legal remedies, the ERA would send a clear and strong message to all Americans that women’s equality is a fundamental human right.
It is enshrined in most constitutions around the world, and our government has insisted that an equal rights provision be included in the constitutions of other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this same provision is missing from our own.
Correcting our Constitution is long overdue. The omission has perpetuated a lack of respect for women and engendered a culture that allows sexual harassment to continue unchecked.
The days of impunity are finally ending. To truly create a new culture, one that promotes accountability for men and respect for women, we need to give women equal rights in the Constitution once and for all.
Jessica Neuwirth is president of the ERA Coalition and the author of “Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now.”
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